Shipquay Books and News was a hive of activity on Wednesday. Funny how closing down sales always attract a crowd.
The friendly and ever professional staff were kept busy during their last few days in their jobs. And in the small office at the back of the packed shop, business owner Nat Roche was making the final preparations before pulling the shutters down for the final time next week.
As has been the form in the days since the closure of the much loved city centre shop, Nat found himself taking a call from a supplier and gently informing them that he won’t be putting in any further orders. He thanked the person on the phone profusely for their support of the shop and wished them well for the future.
It’s that kind of manner which has rightly earned Nat a reputation for being a solid businessman, a decent person, and his shop a reputation for being one of Derry’s longest standing and most respected businesses.
Nat’s office is tiny. His priority has always been the ‘front of shop.’ The shop floor takes up 99.9 per cent of the ground floor space, just enough to house magazines on almost every subject known to man. That, says Nat, is what the shop has been most good at.
“We would have been open 27 years in November coming and we’ve had people here who ordered magazines on day one who still have their regular orders with us here to this day,” he says.
For Nat, from Derry’s Culmore Road, closing the shop isn’t a decision he’s taken lightly. And he’s worked closely with his landlords over the past year to try and keep the local operation going.
“It’s a combination of factors really but to be honest, it just wasn’t possible to do it any longer,” he says, regretfully. “Since the downturn around 2010 we’ve noticed a dip. People just don’t have the same money to spend anymore. But the big thing which has really crippled us is the rates. The rates being set for city centre traders are much, much too high. And I don’t think we’ll be the last business to close our doors. Our landlords have been accommodating in so far as they can and we have tried to make it work, but it’s been made impossible,” says Nat.
In 27 years in business, Nat has seen Derry transform. He opened during the Troubles and in the decades since, he’s watched Derry evolve as a city.
The political leaps and strides however haven’t translated into people having more money in their pockets.
“In the eighties, Shipquay Street was thriving,” says Nat. “You had three banks and busy shops everywhere. One of the lasting memories I have is of the factory girls coming to Shipquay Street every Friday when they got paid. You could have set your watches by them, just after two o’clock. They’d come round the shops, they’d be in and out buying their bits and pieces and then in for a few drinks and that buzz was just brilliant. It really was, Now, Shipquay Street is totally changed and it’s sad to see it. There’s less footfall than ever before. We don’t have the ATM’s we used to have which used to bring a few more people in this direction. It’s all so different.”
The one thing which Nat says hasn’t changed is his customer base and the fact that he’s had a loyal and hard working staff over the years.
“The customers and the staff are what has made it,” he smiles.
Anyone who has spent more than ten minutes in Nat’s company will agree that he is definitely a people person and that importance of a good working relationship with the public has trickled down to his staff.
“I just loved that, seeing people come in and out of the shop. I love that kind of communication,” says Nat.
“I think it’s sad to think of people sitting in front of the computer ordering a book without having any kind of interaction with anyone, When I think of our 27 years in business, it’s nice to know that we have people who came in as children to buy their comics who are now bringing their own children in.”
Nat attributes the loyalty customers have shown to the efforts of dedicated workers in the shop down through the years.
“The staff here have always genuinely cared about the customer. I think many people will remember having come in to ask for a particular magazine and the staff will always know straight away what to recommend or where to send them. People have always appreciated that. We’ve been overwhelmed in recent days with all the messages of support and good will that have been shown.”
It’s an emotional time for Nat, who, while he’s happy thinking of busier times in the shop, must now face the reality of looking for work.
“I’ll be looking for a job as soon as we close, as will the two members of staff,” says Nat.
He recognises that the jobs situation in Derry is far from healthy.
“I’ve seen that through working here in the shop. Before you had retail workers who would have worked a full shift and had an hour to take a lunchbreak. During that lunch break people would be out in the city centre in the shops, and in and out of places getting something to eat. But I’ve noticed in the past few years that people aren’t working full shifts and a lot of people are on these contracts where they don’t know what they’re going to be working from one week to the next. That too has had an impact on us. It’s all a knock on effect.”
While he’s aware of the reality, in his typical affable manner however Nat is hopeful that there will be life after Shipquay Books and News. Married to Marion and father of Martin, Kathy, Dessie and Kevin, and with two grandchildren Matthew and Aoife, family life will be as busy as ever,
“But I will miss the place,” says Nat.
And Shipquay Street will miss him.
The closing down sale at Shipquay Books and News, with up to 50 per cent off, continues right through until next weekend.